Left to right: Paul Ehlers, Oliwia Nadolna, Marike Schneider, and Josephine Lehaff Photo by Zuzana Ľudviková

Dealing with an uncertain future

We’re not going anywhere

Left to right: Paul Ehlers, Oliwia Nadolna, Marike Schneider, and Josephine Lehaff Photo by Zuzana Ľudviková
As plans to curb internationalisation in higher education become more concrete, internationals watch with shaking heads. Some think the government will backtrack, while others are already busy learning Dutch. But most aren’t considering leaving.
By Ingrid Ştefan and Rob van der Wal
1 May om 11:11 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 7 May 2024
om 10:05 uur.
May 1 at 11:11 AM.
Last modified on May 7, 2024
at 10:05 AM.

‘It’s difficult to understand why we are having this conversation. What is the real motivation?’ wonders professor of innovation management Pedro de Faria from Portugal. 

‘The university complains that they don’t have enough money, but at the same time they don’t want internationals’, says German physics student Marike Schneider. ‘It’s just confusing.’

‘I think politicians are fixing something that’s maybe a non-problem’, feels Janice*, a Canadian staff member at the Faculty of Science and Engineering. ‘And what effect will this have, not just on the reputation of the university, but also on what the students can learn?’


Most international students and staff at the UG fail to understand the plans to curb internationalisation in higher education. While they have noticed the current problems such as a shortage of housing, they think it’s short-sighted to solely blame internationals for that.

This reaction of the government is not the right way to solve the problem

~ Oliwia Nadolna

‘I understand these concerns’, says psychology student Leon Lepenies from Germany. ‘But I feel Groningen is an international city and depends on international students and their money.’

Forensic psychology student Oliwia Nadolna, originally from Poland, agrees. ‘This reaction of the government is not the right way to solve the problem. It’s more reactive with regards to the concerns of people in this country instead of proactive.’

To De Faria, the plans seem like a one-size-fits-all fix for a lot of different problems. ‘There’s no clear objective, which makes solutions difficult to evaluate.’ 

But in the meantime, they do have to deal with the situation.

Positive recommendation

In mid-April, the Council of State, which votes on legislative proposals, issued a positive recommendation on the Internationalisation in Balance Act. This means the proposal can now go to the Dutch Lower House, a majority of which is in favour of adopting the bill into law. The whole thing should be done before September 1.

In Denmark, they discovered it’s really not working

~ Josephine Lehaff

So how do internationals at the UG feel about their future? Will they be staying here, opting to learn Dutch? Or will they go elsewhere to chase their academic dreams?

Josephine Lehaff thinks this is probably a temporary thing. The assistant professor at the Faculty of Arts is Danish and has seen what happened in her own country when they took similar measures. ‘They curbed the influx of internationals for a couple of years and then they discovered that it’s not really working.’ 

How did we get here?

Overcrowded lecture halls, the anglicisation of education, high workloads for staff, and severe room shortages in student cities: high student numbers are causing issues in several areas. The current government feels this is mainly due to the increased influx of international students and hopes to tackle the problems with a new law, the Internationalisation in Balance Act (WIB).

This will allow universities of applied sciences and universities to limit the number of international students. The law also states that bachelor programmes – masters are exempt for now – must in principle be Dutch-language. However, the labour market for the programme and the region in which the university is located will be taken into account. How this will be done is not yet clear.

Anticipating the introduction of the law, at the beginning of this year, the Lower House called on universities to come up with their own plan to counter anglicisation. Mostly right-wing parties – who have been a majority since the last elections – supported this motion.

Danish companies complained about a shortage of highly educated employees which meant that last year, the policy was withdrawn. ‘It’s a kind of pattern I’m used to witnessing’, Lehaff says. ‘I’m used to it being more of a way of signalling a position on internationalisation than an actual plan.’ 

Right-wing trend

Ritumbra Manuvie, an Indian assistant professor of law at UCG, isn’t really worried either. She feels like it’s a phase, coming from a right-wing trend. ‘This is going to pass.’ Another thing that mitigates her concern is that English is the lingua franca at UCG. A meeting at her faculty suggested there won’t be any changes in staff as a result of the government’s plans. ‘So my position feels secure.’

Meanwhile, arts lecturer Geraldine* from the United States feels less secure. She gets some negative responses from her colleagues, she says. ‘Mostly older people now see me and my international colleagues as a burden, because we can’t teach in Dutch. They previously felt the burden of teaching in English that they have needed to do for some years now and feel like this is payback.’

It’s not a fair comparison, she believes. ‘If you learn the English language from a young age, say below twenty-five, it’s much easier than learning a new language at an older age like I need to.’

Teaching in Dutch

For that reason, Geraldine doesn’t see herself teaching a lot of courses in Dutch, although she speaks the language quite well. ‘I had a private tutor, and I think I could master the level of Dutch for academic teaching in a year with two to four hours of lessons and twenty hours of self-study a week.’

Those are a lot of hours, however, and she doesn’t think the university will let her study during work time. ‘And even if I do get there, it will take me more time to check Dutch students’ assignments compared to English.’

Mostly older people now see international colleagues as a burden

~ Geraldine

Moreover, teaching in Dutch doesn’t even make sense, De Faria says. ‘It would lower the quality of education and academic articles would constantly need to be translated.’

Lehaff wouldn’t go that far. ‘I do think there are good reasons for having to teach in Dutch, as it’s more accessible for Dutch students. The problem is when we start talking about not having degrees in English as well.’

And while Geraldine is hoping for more clarity from the university and the faculty about which changes they are making – ‘My supervisor is confused as well’ – others, like UCG assistant professor Rodrigo Gonzalez from Mexico, feel they’re getting enough information. ‘We’re constantly updated on the law and where we are at this point.’

Lehaff, who’s at the arts faculty like Geraldine, says the topic has been brought up in group meetings. ‘We’re not having one-on-one reassuring talks, but I also don’t think that’s necessary at this point of time.’

Supportive employer

Despite all the questions the internationalisation plan raises, most international staff members UKrant spoke to aren’t considering leaving. ‘The university as an employer is very supportive’, says De Faria. ‘The signal I’m getting is that they will do their best to protect their internationals.’

For Geraldine, it depends on what the future brings. ‘I might leave if the majority of my work needs to be done in Dutch.’ Gonzalez was already considering leaving before the internationalisation bill was proposed. ‘Mainly because of cultural reasons, but the plans will definitely be a factor to consider. It’s not just the direct impact of the law, but also how it affects my friends and colleagues. That indirectly impacts me.’

It’s not just the direct impact of the law, but also how it affects my friends

~ Rodrigo Gonzalez

Janice plans to stay because of personal reasons. ’I moved here with my family, they are now settled too, and my husband has a job here’, she says. ‘But if I were a student or postdoc, the conversation would be entirely different.’ 

Unique position

If she had to choose a place to study again, agrees Marike, the German physics student, it wouldn’t be the Netherlands. She prefers an English-language bachelor. ‘There are not that many options in Europe to study physics in English. I feel like the UG would lose their unique position if they switch to Dutch.’

But at this point in time, for her, it doesn’t really matter anymore what will happen with the internationalisation plans. ‘I want to live closer to my friends and family anyway’, she says. ‘That was not really affected by the law.’

Paul Ehlers, a German forensic psychology student, feels the same kind of indifference. ‘It’s not my cup of tea anymore, as I will be doing a promotion elsewhere. But for new students, it’s very different. If I were new, I wouldn’t know what to do.’

Psychology student Leon feels ‘pretty shitty’ about the plans, however. He was able to pursue a psychology bachelor here, when he couldn’t in his home country Germany because of the high entry demands there. ‘And if they at some point cut the English master programmes as well, then I’m really in deep shit.’

* Janice and Geraldine are pseudonyms. Their real names are known to the editorial staff.